Juana Tamale is everything Jennifer Zavala promised, and more
The chef famous for her tamale pop-ups has finally found a forever home. And right now, it’s the coolest house on the block.
Inside they call names so fast you barely have time to sit down before your order is waiting at the counter – you barely have time to get settled before the bags are handed over and sent to you in the fading sunlight and non-stop traffic Passyunk Avenue East.
Tamales – it’s the draw here. Tamales are what chef Jennifer Zavala built her reputation on — in pop-ups, on the streets, in the van. Tamales thick with a tender masa paste that holds onto the lines of the corn husks they are steamed in. Tamales stuffed with shredded marinated beef, onions and chilies, with refritos and whole hominy, cubes of soft yam meat and bitter kale.
There are a few tables. Some people are eating in – opening takeout and tearing up tacos and tamales like they just can’t wait – but most of the business is takeout. And every time employees hand bags to another customer, they smile. You have to look for it, the squinting above the mask, the ticking of the ears, but it’s there. Every order at the door is a win. A small victory in the fight against the tide, which happens every time Zavala opens the doors and turns on the lights of his very first legitimate, legal and real restaurant.
For years she did it on the fly, from a tagged van. No license, no papers. She just woke up and committed crimes. She had a pop-up called Juana Tamale at Underground Arts on Callowhill who would draw some epic lines. She started making tacos and ramen. Churros (both vegan and not-so). Always the tamales, because it is the street food par excellence. They are made in their own container. You can eat them while walking.
But she wanted a place of her own. Something in South Philly, preferably. A permanent address, with a kitchen that wouldn’t roll if it forgot to put the handbrake on. And Juana Tamale (the restaurant) is that place. Really, it’s the same operation she’s always run – the same turn-and-burn mentality, the same pirate vibe. The same uninterrupted stream of customers and queue that never seems to get any shorter.
Sometimes you judge a restaurant by what it is. Sometimes you have to weigh that against what he wants to be. The best of them – the absolute killers, the ones that get into your blood and live there – are the ones where you can talk about both things at the same time. This is exactly what they want to be every day.
Juana Tamale is like that. Stepping through the doors is like stepping into a Pee-wee punk-rock performance hall — all the bright colors, twisted picture frames, acid-trip curves, and organized clutter. It’s SoCal psychobilly in a Von Dutch bowling shirt, loud in every way. And there is nothing in any of this that seems wrong. Juana Tamale lives in her quirkiness. The staff is aggressively friendly. They scream your name when your order arrives and always make sure you get what you came for. The place is small enough for a dozen people to feel like a crowd, but loved enough (and talked about enough and shilled enough by anyone who’s ever had a transformative taco experience at the hands of Jen Zavala) that there are only ever a dozen people there. Or almost never. I saw crowds there like she was handing out free beer and loosies. I’ve seen the place sell out of everything within hours. This time a guy at the counter bought churros for everyone in the joint, and the next day Zavala served a unique special torta inspired by him. She called it “The Gift”.
Crowds arrive (like me) for birria tacos so juicy, they should come with a bib – gooey with cheese, crispy on the dish, served with a cup of consommé that I drained like a shot when the tacos were all gone . Tamale offerings change regularly. Ramen is an Instagram darling. It comes with noodles swimming in a spicy brick-red birria broth and a taco for dipping. It’s gimmicky, of course. But also oddly authentic – to here, to now, to this place and to this crew and to this time, even if there is no other particular cuisine or geography beyond South Philly. And the churros are simply delicious, even when someone else isn’t footing the bill.
Is it expensive? Yeah, that’s it. But there is also something provocative about it. Zavala tries to provide a living wage for its employees. They make some of the best birria and tamales in town, so they charge what the market will bear. These lines? This means that she calculated correctly. Juana’s team get paid for what they do (plus an automatic 20% tip), and if you mind, cool. Go somewhere else.
It just means one less person in line in front of me when I return.
3 stars — Come from anywhere in the region
0 stars: stay away
★: come if you have no other options
★★: come if you are around
★★★: come from anywhere in the region
★★★★: come from anywhere in the country
Posted as “Root Down” in the February 2022 issue of philadelphia cream magazine.